Lance Armstrong Proves He’s No Michael Jordan—and Still a Huge Asshole
The new ESPN 30 for 30 documentary “Lance” features a series of candid interviews with the disgraced cycling legend, who is as unapologetic and evasive as ever.
Any concern that Lance will be a four-hour apology tour designed to elicit sympathy for its disgraced subject is quickly squashed by its opening minutes. In a new interview, seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong reveals that, in the years following his fall from grace, he expected just about everyone he encountered to tell him “Fuck you.” When that finally happened, he realized, “Some people just can’t chill the fuck out. They’re pissed, still. And they will be pissed forever.”
Later, with regards to the copious banned substances he took to achieve racing immortality—and, then, infamy—he confesses, “I educated myself on what was being given, and I chose to do it.” And even in the aftermath of scandal, he remains defiantly unrepentant, stating repeatedly about his ordeal, “I wouldn’t change a thing.”
As those and many more soundbites make clear, the Lance Armstrong showcased by Marina Zenovich’s two-part 30 for 30 ESPN documentary (premiering May 24) isn’t one looking to mend fences. Candid, thoughtful and alternately charming and off-putting, he’s the mess of contradictions he has been since he finally came clean in a January 2013 Oprah Winfrey interview, admitting that his cycling career was thoroughly tainted by the very performance-enhancing drugs he had long maintained—loudly and angrily, in the media and the courtroom—he did not take. Especially in its early going, Armstrong’s likable charisma is hard to resist, and amplified by his forthrightness. In fact, it’s such a glaring issue that, via chats with ESPN reporter Bonnie Ford and former VeloNews editor Charles Pelkey, director Zenovich has to directly address whether her film will be manipulated by the icon into an image-rehabilitation project.
Mercifully, Lance isn’t interested in making over Armstrong’s hopelessly tarnished reputation. Rather, it’s a confrontational investigation of a sad, paradoxical figure ruined by the same qualities that made him great. Armstrong’s toughness, cockiness, resilience, and furious will to win helped him become an unparalleled cyclist, as well as an individual who could overcome Stage 3 testicular cancer that had metastasized to his lymph nodes, lungs, brain, and abdomen. He was driven by Michael Jordan-esque intensity, and like the Chicago Bulls star depicted in The Last Dance, he would routinely concoct imaginary rivalries just to get his juices flowing—or, as he puts it, “to get my hate on.” When he rebounded from his seemingly fatal illness to nab his first Tour de France title in 1999 (after partnering with controversial trainer Michele Ferrari), he instantly became a shining symbol of persevering against insurmountable life-and-death odds to achieve your goals.
Furthering his celebrity, the Lance Armstrong Foundation (now known as the Livestrong Foundation) blossomed into an international sensation, raising awareness and aiding hundreds of thousands of men and women struggling with cancer. The combination of his cycling success and cancer-related altruism transformed Armstrong into a larger-than-life household name, on par with Michael and Tiger. From the get-go, whispers circulated about how a formerly sick man could achieve such a monumental feat. Yet at least in 1999, for a sport coming off a near-catastrophic doping scandal the year prior, the desire to prop up the fairy tale was overwhelming, and drowned out any press interest in posing problematic questions about his performance.
The more Armstrong won, however, the more the PED accusations mounted, which in turn compelled the cyclist to mount increasingly hostile attacks on his accusers. Boasting the participation of Betsy Andreu (wife of former teammate Frankie Andreu), title-stripped Tour winner Floyd Landis, and numerous other teammates, Lance doesn’t shy away from Armstrong’s campaign of vicious character assassination (and lawsuits) against those who dared publicize his dirty secret. In his address of those incidents, Armstrong shows both sides of himself. With regards to soigneur Emma O’Reilly, Armstrong expresses feeling bad about vigorously slandering the masseuse and physical therapist. When it comes to Landis, however, he has nothing but antipathy, referring to his fellow cyclist as someone who wakes up “a piece of shit every day.”
Lance’s biggest misstep is not pressing Armstrong further about why he holds Landis in particular contempt versus the other former comrades and acquaintances that went on the record about his rule-breaking behavior. Still, buoyed by archival clips and the participation of key friends, relatives and cohorts, Zenovich’s portrait captures Armstrong in all his many shades of grey: his arrogant bravado, his imposing athleticism, his heartfelt dedication to fighting cancer, his vindictive ruthlessness, and his unapologetic boldness, which on a few occasions is complicated by teary-eyed expressions that suggest he’s sorrier, and more ashamed, than he’s willing to let on. Moreover, the director provides a comprehensive account of how this entire affair unfolded, as a young brash upstart (and product of a broken home and abusive stepfather) in a sport with a history of PED abuse sought to keep pace with, and surpass, his cheating rivals, only to become a global brand and spokesman for a noble cause—meaning that his deception had to be upheld, and defended, in order to protect his public-health work.
That Armstrong used his cancer (and, as many contend, his Foundation) as a shield against criticism is undeniable, and despicable, and Lance benefits from Armstrong’s willingness to answer everything thrown his way. He rails against “wimps” and “pussies,” mourns the fate of cyclist Jan Ullrich, and dismisses and disparages folks that helped him reach the apex of his profession. He’s a revealing narrator, but not necessarily a reliable one, and question marks thus hang over every moment of apparent sincerity or shame. “Nobody dopes and is honest,” he states at one point, both articulating a truth and yet also underlining his own habitual dishonesty. For all his outspokenness in Zenovich’s film, Armstrong comes across as a guy whose biggest regret isn’t cheating his way to the top, or predicating his uplifting cancer work on sham accomplishments (and jeopardizing it all with lies), or bullying and destroying anyone who dared expose him, but rather, that he wound up getting caught thanks to foolish strategic decisions.
Armstrong ultimately feigns humility by casting his disgrace as a positive, saying, “I needed a fucking nuclear meltdown, and I got it.” Yet there’s no genuine mea culpa here; even when discussing EPO, the red blood cell-boosting hormone that gave him a huge competitive advantage, he defends his actions: “This is not going to be a popular answer, but in many ways, EPO is a safe drug, assuming certain things. Assuming taken properly, assuming taken under the guidance of a medical professional, taken in conservative amounts. There are far worse things you can put in your body.” And for all his on-camera admissions that he acted terribly toward O’Reilly and others, Armstrong continues to exude an air of righteous indignation, especially toward a cycling (and media) world that—naturally, given his peerless stardom—treated him more harshly than it did other wrongdoers. For all his mistakes and betrayals, he’s outed in Lance as an individual who still sees himself as a victim.